Obama's speech in Oslo was certainly eloquent, though after this past year I've begun to heavily discount his rhetoric whenever he appears to be endorsing some specifically liberal policy goal. His speech yesterday had some passages that I hope we'll be able to quote someday after Obama really does become a symbol of peaceful international politics for real, not just in dreams and aspirations. (Remarks by the President at the Acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize 12/10/09)
So for now, I'm just ignoring the passages that could be taken to hint at recongizing the need to move away from the Long War posture that keeps us permanently involved in wars and is the main justification for eroding democracy and human rights in the United States. I can't take those passages seriously at this point.
I was glad to see this realist declaration:
Let me also say this: The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach - condemnation without discussion - can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.
Even Jimmy Carter's human rights policy was ambiguous. His administration used it more as a propaganda club against the Soviet Union than anything else. But that wasn't all it was about.
He really did push friendly but repressive regimes like the junta in Argentina to improve their human rights practices. It's not an easy thing to do without turning human rights into a cynical slogan. But at least part of the experience of Carter's human rights policy shows that it is possible for the US to lead by example, and that the US Government can substantially help ordinary people and protect persecuted dissidents by shining the light of international publicity on them.
But one of the things that impressed me very much during the Cheney-Bush years was that the rhetoric of human rights was cynically used to promote wars against countries like Afghanistan and Iraq as well as Syria and Iran, wars that had little or nothing to do with defending human rights. It's made me more cautious than ever about "liberal hawk" arguments, which are very easily appropriated by neocons and even regular old warmongers to justify endless interventions and wars, with the killing and destruction they represent.
And until Obama is ready to prosecute the torture perpetratrators, there's a lot of what he said in the speech that no one has any reason to take seriously:
And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America's commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. (Applause.) And we honor -- we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it's easy, but when it is hard. [my emphasis]
Hopefully, Obama really has ended the current torture. But not only is he not upholding those ideals, he's not even upholding the law when it comes to prosecuting torture perpetrators, whether it's easy or hard. And this year would have been the easiest time to push forward aggressively on prosecuting torturers. It's a bad joke that he's saying this.
First, in dealing with those nations that break rules and laws, I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to actually change behavior - for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. [my emphasis]
Obviously he's talking her about foreign coutnries the US wants to target, most obviously Iran right now. The Cheney-Bush regime broke the law big-time, most obviously with the torture program. Far from holding them accountable, the Obama administration has made even more far-ranging secrecy claims to protect torture perpetrators from that regime that broke the rules in the most serious way.
Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted.
And yet that's exactly what the Obama administration is doing on the Cheney-Bush crimes, including torture.
Those aspects of Obama's speech I pretty much dismiss as unserious as far as their expressed content is concerned, although obviously any such speech by the President may be used to send diplomatic signals of practical import, like the hint at further sanctions against Iran. But the following parts I find disturbing. It's depressing, though not at all surprising, to see Obama link the Long War against Al Qa'ida, including Obama's Good War in Afghanistan to the American emblematic example of the Good War, the Second World War:
And while it's hard to conceive of a cause more just than the defeat of the Third Reich and the Axis powers, World War II was a conflict in which the total number of civilians who died exceeded the number of soldiers who perished. ...
I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason. [my emphasis]
Ever since the Second World War, all our wars have been new wars against "Hitler". This kind of chronic comparison of ever foreign opponent to Hitler has resulted in chronic threat inflation. I've discussed Jeffrey Record's analysis of this problem in my post Review of The Specter of Munich by Jeffrey Record 01/02/07.
On democracy and war, this sounds uncomfortably like neocon dogma:
I reject these choices. I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear. Pent-up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence. We also know that the opposite is true. Only when Europe became free did it finally find peace. America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens. No matter how callously defined, neither America's interests -- nor the world's -- are served by the denial of human aspirations. [my emphasis]
For the neocons, the idea that democracies don't fight wars against each other was a justification for continual wars of "liberation" against any Arab (or Iranian) regime that the US and/or Israel found annoying. One of the realities of mass democracy is that a democratic country can be persuaded by propaganda, lies and fear to go to war. Chile, Guatemala, the Dominican, Brazil and Iran all are examples of countries in which the United States actively intervened with covert methods against elected governments. If the Long War practices continue, it's only a matter of time until overt war "against a democracy" happens. Maybe even under the Obama administration: Iran can scarcely be considered a fully free country by democratic and human rights standards, but they do have greater electoral choice than a number of our close allies in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
I'm also concerned to see the proliferation of humanitarian-hawk talk:
But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions -- not just treaties and declarations -- that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest -- because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity. ...
And this becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor. More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.
I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That's why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.
America's commitment to global security will never waver. But in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone. America alone cannot secure the peace. This is true in Afghanistan. This is true in failed states like Somalia, where terrorism and piracy is joined by famine and human suffering. And sadly, it will continue to be true in unstable regions for years to come.
War is war and it's about killing people. It is not a humanitarian undertaking.